I dreamed of visiting Egypt, all my life, but it had seemed so faraway and unattainable until my first trip in December 1995.
Then the months of waiting, anticipating, dreading disappointment and the packing and re-packing of my suitcase were over; in the departure lounge at the airport, the waiting still seemed an eternity. At last the plane took off and Christmas card scenes of a snowy English countryside slid below me, a misty winter sky reflecting a pale full moon setting over a gold-washed landscape. A perfect morning to begin an adventure. In five hours the flight over Switzerland’s deep gorges and glittering mountain peaks, the sparkling blue of the Italian coastline, Corfu and the Greek Islands (can there really be so many?) and a short hop across the Mediterranean Sea, brought us to the long empty stretch of African coastline and then Egypt. Egypt at last. I could see nothing but an infinity of deep golden sand patterned with waves, from above, an ancient sea long forgotten, a clear barren emptiness, peppered with giant paw prints of wind-sculpted rock and interspersed with deep dried-up valleys. And I fell in love. Suddenly we were flying along the Nile, a bright silver-blue ribbon of life twisting and turning on its never-ending journey from the Highlands of Africa down to its wide green Delta. Narrow strips of cultivated land on either side of the river were bordered east and west by vast stretches of mountains, linen folds rising to the high flat desert plateau. The foothills, a neat patchwork of tiny brown or green fields and villages of dun-coloured brick and thatch basked in the warm glow of a low sun. The occasional glint of a moving car or truck or a crooked row of telegraph poles would pick out a road alongside the straight line of a canal as we began to descend. In the midst of my reveries the pilot said we would soon be landing, ‘Seats upright and seatbelts fastened please’ and after a sudden acceleration and one or two bumps we were cruising down the runway of Luxor airport past ancient remains, not of huge stone monuments but the burnt-out corpses of Egypt’s martial past. Luxor was a military airport and its sinister bunkers and scattered remains of drab-coloured warplanes were a reminder of the country’s troubled times of a few decades ago.
As the aircraft came to rest in its bay and passengers elbowed each other for access to their belongings in the overhead compartments, I could see a row of ramshackle airport busses waiting to carry this week’s delivery of expectant tourists into the care of their tour guides in the terminal. The airport terminal seemed little more than a large hut in the desert at that time and as I descended the aircraft steps the incredible hot wind of Egypt, even on a December afternoon, was a precursor of excitement I was to feel every time my feet touched Egyptian soil.
How we were crammed into those busses like sardines in a can, clutching the overhead straps and trying to hang on to hand luggage at the same time and all the while the driver seemed to take delight in veering round sharp corners, throwing us all in one direction then the other. The terminal was a free-for-all as passengers scrambled for visas and queued for passport control. Beyond this, men in long robes or overalls were heaving suitcases off a conveyor belt, reluctant to let them go unless a tip was given. Voices shouting in an unfamiliar language, hands grabbing, customs officers with bored expressions waving us on, then I was outside and met by our tour leader. I had booked, with some friends, an ‘Egyptian Experience’, which promised a Nile cruise, a few days in Cairo and a few days in Luxor.
The sun was setting as I boarded the coach and a clear red sky lit our way along the riverside road towards Esna where the cruise boat was waiting. It was a journey of about an hour and my first taste of crazy Egyptian road-craft. The buildings scattered along the road looked dirty, dusty and run-down, small mudbrick dwellings where groups of men sat around meagre bonfires, chewing over the problems of the day just gone with the orange glow of the fire in their faces. Small dark-skinned children ran about or stopped to stare with eyes like saucers as we hurtled by in the coach. Thin tethered donkeys ate mounds of green clover while shaggy brown goats (or were they sheep?) wandered about or just looked on wistfully. It was all so wonderful in my eyes. Our boat was moored at Esna because the lock was closed for repairs which meant that cruise boats couldn’t sail beyond the barrage to Luxor, something, we were told, which happens every year but at unpredictable times. When the coach arrived in Esna we had to wait a while for our boat to be manoeuvred into position but eventually there it was steaming towards us and we were allowed to board, carefully negotiating the precarious roped gang-plank, while the boat’s crew dashed about with our luggage on their heads. I thought the boat beautiful. It was quite small and rather old-fashioned, spotlessly clean, with mahogany panelled walls and a plush red carpeted staircase leading to the upper decks. We were greeted by big smiles of welcome from the reception staff and each of us were given the keys to our cabins. Since then I have seen the many different floating palaces of glass and steel which ply the Nile today, but I am grateful to have had my first Nile cruise on that lovely boat. Dinner was served in the dining room, four beautifully presented courses during which we were waited on like royalty. My friends and I had requested vegetarian meals, something which was virtually unheard of in Egypt and seemed to cause great amusement among the staff. To the waiters ‘No meat’ meant that we would prefer chicken or fish, but I could see that a special effort was being made to accommodate these faddy English.
After dinner I decided to go ashore for a stroll to see the little market town of Esna. To my great surprise there were now seven more cruise boats of assorted shapes and sizes moored alongside us and I had to pass through the doors of each one to reach the riverside. There were many shops still open and the streets were bustling with noise and street-traders, something I wasn’t used to seeing late at night coming from the dark, quiet, English countryside. I was instantly pounced upon by traders, shouting and pushing at each other and calling out to me, insisting I look at every stall, each advertising a better price than his neighbour. All of this was so overwhelming that before very long I didn’t dare to look at anything because I knew it would involve a haggling session – an occupation I’d rather ease into gently. Feeling very tired after a whole day travelling I staggered back to my temporary floating home and collapsed into bed, ecstatically happy to be in Egypt at last.
Since that fateful day more than a decade ago I have travelled to Egypt many times but my first arrival in a country I now regard as a second home typifies my feelings every time I am there for I have never lost the wonder or the magic of that first visit. I have repeated the Nile cruise three times, finding a new enjoyment with each trip. I have seen much of the countryside, the cities and the ancient monuments, met many fascinating people and my feelings for Egypt have never become jaded but have only deepened over the years. The enduring appeal of the country is not in the way it looks, but in the way it feels. I am not the first to suffer the hypnotic pull of the Nile, called the mother of all rivers, the life-giving gift from the gods. Many other travellers of this land have found, like I have, that Egypt bewitches, it gets under the skin like the fine desert sand that penetrates everything.
The Nile Cruise
Cruise boats may seem a little touristy to the seasoned traveller but there’s no denying that they are an excellent introduction to the country. Tourists, cocooned under the boat’s protective awnings, are dealt a metered amount of visits ashore, shepherded by their guides who gradually create a coherent picture of Egypt’s venerable past. Western sensibilities have no opportunity to be offended by the shabby poverty of Egypt’s reality. But there is also a great experience of timelessness and peaceful tranquillity on the Nile as the boat glides by small villages and farms little changed since pharaonic times, where young boys still play naked in the river while mothers wash their dishes and grandfathers wash their buffalo. To sail the Nile, is to voyage into the past.
The floating hotels come in many shapes and sizes ranging from ultra-modern five-star palaces to more modest and older boats or even a paddle steamer or a dahabeyah. The River Nile is an ideal tourist environment which has brought visitors to the country for thousands of years, but the real industry of tourism was only born when Thomas Cook began to organise cruises and package tours to Egypt in the late nineteenth century. Using romantic dahabeyahs, the wooden sailing boats of that earlier age, he created an atmosphere of a country house-party for the duration of his twenty three day cruise. Cook’s Tours were expensive and his wealthy guests expected only the best. The boats were fitted with comfortable furnishings imported from England, and white-gloved Egyptian waiters in spotless robes served English canned food prepared by European chefs. The attraction of the dahabeyah was that the itinerary was flexible and the boats could dock wherever the guests wished. It is interesting to note that the itineraries established in those bygone days by Thomas Cook are very close to those used today, at least on the Luxor to Aswan stretch of the Nile. The only difference is that tourists are now transported to the monuments in coaches rather than by donkey.
In 1922, the publicity surrounding Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb brought a new wave of visitors to Egypt. Egyptomania took hold of the world’s imagination like a cult and went a long way towards the promotion of tourism, which by the year 2000 had reached a total of four million visitors. These visitors are concentrated in the areas of Cairo, Luxor and Aswan where there is certainly enough to see in these three regions to keep anyone pleasantly occupied for many years and for my own first few visits I was happy to stay within these confines.
Karnak and Luxor
My first Egyptian dawn brought a view of the River Nile through the cabin’s open curtains, a flat calm expanse of jade water from which graceful white birds rose and soared through the mist, landing again on loose clumps of water hyacinths floating by. I later discovered that the birds were egrets, ubiquitous along the Nile and suggestive of the ibis, sacred to the ancient Egyptians who identified the bird with Thoth, the jackal-headed god of writing. On that first morning we had an early start, to be bussed back to Luxor on the same road we had taken the previous evening but where now small groups of children made their way to school and donkey carts or bicycle carts piled high with fresh produce made their way to market; all Egypt seemed to be out and about and determined to create an atmosphere of sheer chaos. It seemed to me that there were no rules laid down for drivers apart from the incessant use of the horn as the coach swerved around donkeys, goats and cows and hurtled down whichever side of the road was vacant.
Our first stop was Karnak Temple on the northern edge of Luxor town. Probably the most well-known of Egyptian monuments in the south and the largest temple complex in the world, Karnak covers an area of 100 hectares where much restoration has taken place during the last century and is still going on today. I had seen old black and white photographs of this temple taken when it was still a ruin, fallen columns lying in situ surrounded by great mounds of rubble and sand, but what a difference now. In ancient times, Karnak was known as Ipet-isut, ‘the most select of places’ and the town of Luxor, known by the Greek name of Thebes, was called Waset. I was awestruck at the colossal size of gateways and columns as our guide, Salah, took us on a tour of the monument, waiting for us to settle down and listen while he explained in his quiet and sensitive way, the meanings of walls populated by strangely drawn figures and magical picture-scripts of animals, birds and plants representing the whole of man’s natural environment. The colourful histories of kings long dead is recorded in deep relief on the warm stones. At that time I knew nothing about ancient Egypt apart from the little I had read as a child and more recently read (but hadn’t yet absorbed) from guidebooks. My whole being as I walked around those vast halls in a daze, felt like a limb which had gone to sleep, waiting to be reawakened in another era way back in time. It was here within the giant edifice of Karnak on my first day in Egypt that I realised that this was to be no ordinary holiday but that something inexplicable was happening to me which was to change my life. I was struck by a thirst for knowledge which even now is unquenchable and I knew I would have learn much more about this amazing ancient land.
Around four thousand years ago, during Dynasty XIII, local rulers built a shrine to their god on a mound in the centre of what is now called the Temple of Amun at Karnak. With every successive pharaoh the temple was enlarged, each king writing his name on the massive stones to be remembered throughout history, each king striving to emulate and surpass his predecessor with his grand designs. Without their forethought we would have little knowledge of their religion and exploits today. Egyptian temples were mostly built to an established plan with the most sacred part, the ‘Holy of Holies’ the shrine housing the cult statue in which the god resided, deep at its centre. The main part of this temple was dedicated to the Theban Triad of the god Amun, his consort Mut and Khonsu their child, a holy trinity which predated Christianity by more than fifteen hundred years. Over time new sanctuaries were constructed at Karnak and the temple grew outwards on an east-west axis and later a north-south axis. New kings added vast halls with gigantic warm brown sandstone columns carved in the form of papyrus plants, an emblem of ancient Egypt said to represent the swamp from which all life stemmed. New Kingdom rulers called Amenhotep, Tuthmose and the fascinating Queen Hatshepsut, Rameses and Seti, whose funerary temples lay on the other side of the Nile, were newly introduced characters in a play I would eventually become much more familiar with. Everywhere there were royal statues and obelisks and the whole structure, we were told, would have once been painted in an array of the bright gaudy colours still much admired by modern Egyptians. Karnak can be a confusing place, its buildings were the work of many rulers and its construction continued for over a thousand years. Most visitors on guided tours have only a very short time to gaze in wonder at the temple and come away with little idea of the complex as a whole. My first visit was no exception and although I could appreciate the grandeur and vastness of the place which so affected me, I took in very little detail of its history. One of my main interests is photography and I looked upon this trip to Egypt as a great ‘photo-opportunity’. But on that first visit to Karnak I didn’t take a single picture while other tourist’s cameras were whirring and flashing all around me among the massive columns. I knew I would be back.
Our next port of call, in the centre of Luxor south of the great Karnak Temple, was another temple dedicated to Amun, anciently known as Ipet-resyt, the ‘Southern Opet’. Luxor Temple, with its regal sun-bleached colonnades, open courts and massive statuary that forever guards an imposing Pylon, was built on the site of a shrine of Queen Hatshepsut, or perhaps an even earlier structure and enlarged by Amenhotep III and successive New Kingdom rulers including the exuberant Rameses the Great. Joined to Karnak by a long processional way, the remains of an avenue of sphinxes still point out the route. Here I began to learn about re-used blocks, from structures which were destroyed and rebuilt by later generations. Here also kings and gods lived out their exploits on the walls of the temple and Tutankhamun featured the Opet festival in stunningly fine detail. Opet was an important religious festival when the image of the god Amun sailed downriver from Karnak (or was taken overland during some periods) to be reunited with his consort Mut at Luxor Temple and to take part in a secret ritual within the heart of the temple. Amid the jubilations and drunken reveries of festival crowds encouraged by the priests, the god was reinvigorated and honoured and through the rituals the king’s reign was also strengthened. Here in a court at the head of Amenhotep III’s graceful colonnade, the pillars had been taken down and were in the process of reconstruction. In 1989 a superb cache of statuary had been found beneath the court’s foundations, statues I would later see in Luxor museum. During Roman times parts of the temple were used as a Christian church and remains of Roman military barracks can be seen surrounding the buildings. Perched incongruously high above the temple walls is a mosque dedicated to the Muslim saint Abu‘l Hagag, built when the images of pagan gods were covered by sand to be forgotten and today the mosque is also a protected monument in its own right. Unfortunately both Romans and Muslims helped to relieve the ancient temple of some of its stones.
The Land of the Dead
To get to the Land of the Dead, you have to cross to the West Bank, an experience which involved travelling on the passenger ferry – this was before a new bridge was built across the Nile. The ferry, a cantankerous hulk with peeling paint and rotting timbers was the only way to get over to the West Bank without a long journey by road.
When I was young I was given a book about the Valley of the Kings and my imagination was fired by pictures of the rocky cliffs and valleys, a harsh environment in which to hide the deep painted tombs of generations of kings. This was still the vision of Egypt I was expecting – I couldn’t wait to see the wonderful tombs hidden in deep clefts of rock, where Howard Carter had dug down into the sand and found the incredible golden hoard of the young King Tutankhamun. Driving up the tarmac road, the coach wound its way towards the sun-baked Valley to the point where it widens into a large car park. With a sinking feeling I suddenly became aware of how much the place had changed since the romantic picture of earlier days I’d held in my mind’s eye. I was alarmed to see stalls selling gaudily painted papyrus and cheaply made plaster statues which now lined the narrow entrance to the valley; and worse, the whole place was teaming with tourists wearing shorts and inappropriate shoes, crimson-faced with sunburn beneath their straw hats. On that first visit to the valley I wasn’t sure how I would feel about entering the tombs. With a group of tourists it can never be a pleasant experience descending deep into the hot and humid caverns, squeezing past guides whose piercing voices competed in many languages, endeavouring to impart a little knowledge to their charges. Although I was keen to see the tombs, once inside I felt out of place, an intruder from some future time who had no right to be there. After listening to a short introduction to the history of the King’s Valley and visiting two tombs with Salah’s group (so much new information to take in) we were left to our own devices for a short time.
I wandered away from the crowds and resting for a while by a shady boulder at the head of the valley, gradually I began to see that the real atmosphere had not changed at all in those thousands of years but could be felt thinly-veiled just below the modern surface, all still here for those who care to look. No longer aware of the shrill voices of visitors echoing from one side of the valley to the other, I drifted back to this barren isolated place in a far off epoch, its vertical lines of cliffs even then dry and desiccated in the dazzling sun. I glimpsed faces in those wind-eroded limestone rocks and the more I looked the more I could see, spirits of the landscape watching over this sacred place. The valley, or ‘wadi’ as it is called in Egypt, was carved by rushing floodwaters in the remote past, bringing down great boulders to be deposited on its dense clay floor, leaving screes of loose stones in drifts down the mountain-side. Everywhere on the cliffs there are narrow paths zig-zagging their way up through the rocks towards the high smooth-sloped pyramidal peak of el-Qurn, which is said to be the inspiration behind the choice of this place as a cemetery for kings. The ancient Egyptians, it would seem at first glance, were obsessed with death and spent many years of earthly life planning for that event. I reflected on their strong beliefs about the afterlife; their careful preparations suggested that they were not afraid of death but held onto the thought that their existence would be continued, aided by the food, clothes, furniture, tools and other precious goods placed in the tomb. Ritual offerings were periodically made to the dead by their families or by priests, whether they were kings or commoners and in this way their names lived on. The elaborate tombs and burial rituals of the pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings were no doubt intended to create a stabilising effect in a time which was a potential chaos, between the death of a king and the coronation of his successor. Developed and refined over a five hundred year period the long steep corridors and pillared halls of the tombs depict intricate and colourful religious texts designed to ensure the happy transition of the king whose mummified body was destined to rest forever in his huge sarcophagus, but whose spirit went on to an afterlife in the realms of the gods.
Driving out of the hot sun-baked valley we were told about a side wadi, the Western Valley, where other kings had sited their tombs. I noted this place too as somewhere I would revisit. By now I felt I had absorbed so much information and encountered many new and strange emotions, I was almost ready to call it a day. But there was no rest for poor weary tourists. As light relief we were taken to an alabaster factory, a compulsory detour for all tour groups, its white facade painted with bold child-like drawings of donkeys, camels and aeroplanes, indicating that its owner had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. This one was called Nefertari’s Palace! We were given a demonstration of the process of transforming a shapeless lump of dun-coloured rock into an incredibly fine translucent alabaster vase, by a young man sitting cross-legged among chippings of stone, ghost-like under layers of white dust. I was beginning to learn how charming Egyptian men can be and how flattery is one of their greatest skills. After the factory’s owner had likened one elderly lady of our group to the beautiful Queen Nefertari herself, in an undoubtedly well-rehearsed line of patter, we were ushered inside the shop where we were offered a welcome drink, and expected to return the courtesy by making a purchase.
Our next stop was the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut in the wide bay of cliffs known as Deir el-Bahri, its terraces blending seamlessly into the pale sheer limestone cliffs on the eastern side of the Theban mountain which separates it from the Valley of the Kings. The temple is a magnificent spectacle, constructed on three flat terraces which would have originally been surrounded by gardens with trees and statuary. The first monument to be built in this natural amphitheatre was an earlier structure, a mortuary temple of King Mentuhotep which can be seen as a platform next to Hatshepsut’s temple and may have been the reason that the enigmatic Queen chose to site her own temple here. Its name, Deir el-Bahri, is derived from the Coptic monastery built over the site after it had been partially destroyed by an earthquake, concealing the temple until its discovery in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Since then there has been ongoing excavation and reconstruction, a piecing together of the temple and its colossal statues, with the third terrace only recently completed. At the time of my visit in 1995 the third terrace was not yet open to tourists. In ancient times the temple was called Djeser-djeseru, meaning ‘Sacred of Sacreds’ and Hatshepsut’s monument surpassed anything that had been built before both in its architecture and its beautiful delicately-carved reliefs. The female pharaoh chose to site her temple in an area sacred to the Theban Goddess of the West, but more importantly it was on a direct axis with her sanctuary at Karnak’s Temple of Amun on the East Bank. Hatshepsut’s columned porticoes and courtyards have some very important and famous wall reliefs including a depiction of the transportation of obelisks from quarries at Aswan to Karnak Temple. There are also scenes of her divine birth by which she claimed legitimacy for her coronation as pharaoh and reliefs showing an expedition to the land of Punt, with its incense trees, beautiful birds and strange houses on stilts. My favourite part of the temple was a little side chapel, a shrine dedicated to the goddess Hathor, in the southern part of the second terrace. This is a tiny temple in its own right with two hypostyle halls and a sanctuary cut into the rock at the rear, which would have once housed the sacred barque of the goddess of the Theban necropolis. Square stone columns are crowned with capitals showing the head of Hathor with her huge wig and cows ears.
That evening, the sun set with unexpected speed, sinking to a rosy golden glow behind the mountain and lending fire to the gigantic Colossi of Memnon. This massive pair of statues, now standing ruined and forlorn by the side of the road, once marked the entrance to a mortuary temple which was destroyed in ancient times. They were cut from two massive granite blocks, brought from quarries near Cairo, and carved to represent the pharaoh Amenhotep III. The legend behind their name is interesting. After an earthquake in 27 BC, part of the northern colossus collapsed and from then on, each morning at sunrise, the statue produced a strange musical sound. Early Greek and Roman tourists came to hear the sound, and gave the statue the name of ‘Memnon’, a Trojan hero, the son of Eos and Titan, who sang to his mother each morning at dawn. In reality it is thought that the effect of the sun heating up the stone produced the sound. In the third century AD, Septimus Severus attempted to repair the damaged northern statue and the mysterious ‘singing’ was never heard again. As a result of the legend however, the whole of western Thebes became known as ‘Memnonia’.
I was feeling tired, dazed and happy as my first day in Egypt began to draw to a close and our coach drove us back once more towards Esna, the purple shadows of the mountains retreating as the darkness grew. This was a repeat of the journey from only one day before but already I felt like I’d been in the country for weeks. It had been a very long and intense day, but how much I had experienced in a whirlwind of emotions. After dinner, I sat and watched the stars from the top deck of the boat. And stars as I had never seen them before, glittering in an unpolluted sky rarely seen in Britain, so intensely brilliant that I could see each of the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades sharply defined and almost count the billions of tiny sparks in the Milky Way. I had little sleep that night, still charged by an energy I’d never experienced before. At dawn I was again on deck as the boat steamed south towards Edfu, wrapped in blankets and watching the faintly winking lamps of passing villages in the growing light of a crisp clear morning.
After breakfast the boat docked at Edfu and we all piled onto waiting caleches’ (or horse-drawn carriages) for the short journey to the temple. The modern town, on the west bank of the Nile, is today a busy and important centre for sugar production and pottery-making but the ancient Egyptian Djeba, from which its name derives, was established on a mound on the east bank. The site of the mound or tell at Edfu was the place where the falcon god Horus was worshipped and where in Egyptian mythology, the battle between Horus and his traditional enemy Seth took place.
We approached the temple along its massive enclosure wall on the western side, carved with larger-than-life figures of the descendents of Alexander the Great offering to various deities. Looking up when walking between the massive twin towers of the high entrance pylon, almost mirror images of each other, I saw the traditional scenes of the king smiting his enemies before the god Horus – which was to become a very familiar image before my trip was over. There were mast grooves for flags that would have fluttered gaily at the entrance when the temple was in use. Two statues of Horus as a falcon stood guarding the main entrance. Another colossal black granite statue of Horus as a falcon, wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt stood before the main façade, this one named ‘big bird’ by one of our group. Inside the temple, the first thing I noticed was the almost deafening twittering of sparrows up in the darkened roof, trapped by the mesh put there to keep them out. Columned halls lead to corridors and side rooms, each constructed for a different purpose and each carved over every inch of available space with the now more familiar hieroglyphic writing. Many of the halls are lit only by a small slits in the stone roof, lending a darkly mysterious atmosphere as I went deeper into the temple. At the core of the temple is the sanctuary, where the statue of the god would have been protected from common gaze behind huge doors of cedar covered with gold leaf. The sanctuary contains what is now the oldest object in the temple, a granite shrine for the cult statue. It is easy to let the imagination wander back to the days of chanting priests in the dark recesses of this temple, while the king depicted on the stones of the ‘Holy of Holies’ forever approaches the god with the offerings of the daily ritual. The thought ocurred to me that this was about as immortal as a king can get. I could almost smell fragrant incense on drifting air currents before I was brought sharply back by the incantations of multi-lingual guides irreverently re-enacting the sacred myths of creation and the legend of Horus and Seth, the ‘Edfu Drama’, sculpted on the walls of a corridor surrounding the inner temple. In the Temple of Edfu, on my second full day in Egypt, I was introduced to the creator gods – Geb and Nut, Shu and Tefnut, Isis and Osiris, Nephthys, Horus and Seth. So many new names to remember. I must have been so absorbed in these stories that I managed to over-expose a whole film in my camera.
By lunchtime we were back on our cruise boat and once more sailing on the Nile. The mid-day sun was hot even in December and all colour was drained from the landscape that flowed by in a white dazzling glare. This is the time when Egyptians and sensible tourists have an afternoon siesta. Not I! To waste a minute of this precious time seemed like sacrilege. As I sat on deck watching the river a few huge ponderous barges steamed by, clouds of black smoke curling from their funnels, their hulls low in the water, weighed down by anything from clay pots to bags of fertilizer. One or two grand and gaily decorated cruise boats hooted a greeting as they passed on their way down river towards Luxor, while smaller boats with sagging sails drifted up and down near the shore aimlessly searching for a breeze in the balmy afternoon. Now and then a village appeared around a bend in the river, often little more than a tight cluster of haphazard dwellings and a taller minaret. Between the villages palm trees lined the shore protecting narrow strips of sugar cane or plantations of bananas from cool winter winds and shading them from the more deadly heat of a fierce summer sun. Ancient sludge-green fields were irrigated by narrow drainage channels filled with water lifted by a shaduf, a wooden contraption used since earliest times to draw water from the Nile. More often now there are diesel pumps, chug-chugging away with a regular beat but never disturbing the tranquillity of our journey. The Egyptian peasant or felah traditionally owns small parcels of land which may be planted with crops such as wheat, rice, potatoes or cotton, all of which need varying quantities of water. Each strip of land is enclosed by small earth barriers which help to control the flow of water. In the old days before the Nile was dammed at Aswan, the river overflowed in an annual inundation. When the waters receded handfuls of seeds were broadcast onto the fertile mud to be trodden in by animals. The New Dam has improved the farmers’ task and irrigation is now possible throughout the year, enabling several different plantings in a season, but in the modern industrialised Egypt, this method of farming requires the increasing use of chemicals to improve yields impoverished since the loss of the natural alluvial clay. The Nile has always been the life-blood of Egypt. Its waters provide food in the form of crops and fish, and clothing from cotton; its mud is used for making bricks for houses and its long length and swift current provides a means of transport to the people living along its banks. On either side of the river, in the distance, the irregular line of encroaching hills is an ever-present reminder that cultivated land in Egypt is precious and that the desert is never far away.
I sat on deck all afternoon in a lazy dream, listening to the lapping of water beneath the boat and watching water birds dipping and diving in the reedy banks. The deepening colour of a sky now delicately tinged with reds and purples and beginning to blend with the shadowy reeds at the river’s edge told me it was late afternoon and I looked ahead to where the river was sweeping majestically around a bend into another slice of history. We were arriving at Kom Ombo!
Kom Ombo Temple
Several stately cruise ships were moored in rows as we manoeuvred into an available berth and their passengers were milling about along the length of the landing, gossiping or just stretching their legs in the cooling evening air. The temple stood majestically on a high promontory above the river as if it had deliberately chosen to pose for tourist cameras in the best setting. The town of Kom Ombo, named from the classical Ombos, was strategically placed between Edfu and Aswan as a garrison town on an important trading route, with the Ptolemaic temple and ancient settlement site now a few kilometres from the modern town.
The temple, we learned, is very unusual, being dedicated to two triads of deities, each with their own associated chambers and sanctuaries. On the eastern side of the temple, the crocodile-headed god Sobek is honoured with his wife who is here named as Hathor and their son Khonsu. On the west side, ‘Horus the Elder’ is accompanied by his wife Hathor and their son, the Lord of the Two Lands Panebtawy. A passageway runs around the outside of the main temple building similar to other temples of this period, with a staircase leading to the roof. On the inside of the enclosure wall at the rear of the temple is a famous relief depicting what the guide books tell us are surgical instruments. In the centre of the opposite wall is an oracle niche through which a priest would deliver divine advice to people congregated outside the main part of the temple. Throughout the temple the two gods share power on an equal basis, each in their own side of the central axis. Back in the forecourt to the right of the temple entrance is a small chapel of Hathor where those who are not too squeamish can see the stored remains of a mummified crocodile and clay crocodile coffins, excavated from the nearby animal cemetery. The crocodiles that were sacred to Sobek, were thought to be bred in a small pool on the western side of the temple where there are also remains of a very deep well. Remains of a birth-house can be seen at the northwest corner beyond the wall of the court and a portal of Ptolemy VII is at the northeast corner.
In 1995 the exit from Kom Ombo temple was cleverly designed to guide visitors through a long rambling bazaar selling all kinds of souvenirs. Stalls and stallholders were draped with colourful scarves and galabeyas (the long robe worn by Egyptian men), brightly embroidered and sequined in contrasting colours or stripes to attract the tourist. All was quiet until our group arrived in the street, at which the sleepy stallholders quickly put down their tea and newspapers and began shouting and cajoling, competing with each other for sales. In the short time it took us to walk the length of the bazaar, swaggering Egyptian youths called out ‘Come on down, the price is right’ or ‘Asda price!’ and little boys as young as five or six cried ‘Welcome to Alaska’ with cheeky grins. Like magic, these clever tradesmen could spot the English from a distance and the party of Germans following in our wake had the same treatment in their own language. A lot of intense haggling went on and many of our group came away with arms full of black plastic sacks containing galabeyas, scarves, statues and papyrus, sure they had got a bargain, only to find later that their friends had bought the same items for less. I made my first purchases, a lovely dark green galabeya and a necklace of tiny coloured clay beads and felt quite pleased with myself for taking the plunge and entering into the spirit of this bargaining game which is part of Egyptian life. It was all very good-natured even if it was quite exhausting.
Back on the boat I stood on deck admiring the temple from a distance, now dramatically floodlit against the blackening sky as we pulled away from shore to continue our journey. The ‘Captain’s cocktail party’, with its fountain of sparkling exotic fruit juices and interesting snacks, was only the beginning of our evening entertainment.
The next day arrived with another calm clear morning and I woke early to find the boat had docked in Aswan. With the dawn came the Call to Prayer. This evocative incantation, ‘God is great’, broadcast from mosques throughout the towns and villages of Egypt, urges all faithful Muslims to turn east towards the holy city of Mecca and bow down in prayer to Allah. The dawn prayer echoed from minaret to minaret like a ghostly wail rising from the sleeping town, beginning a rhythm that would be sustained by four more prayers, sonorous and sing-song, at intervals throughout the day. Then came the dawn chorus, as if the birds too had been woken by the muezzin’s call, feeling the urge to compete with him, before the noisy traffic on the Corniche began to encroach on the sounds of daybreak. My own reflections as I lay listening to these pleasing sounds brought me to appreciate how time in Egypt seems to have an elastic quality, each day beginning and ending in the same way. I could hardly believe that I had been in the country for less than three days, so much had I already seen and experienced.
The large town on the east bank of the Nile was already bustling at eight o’clock as our coach negotiated the busy road along the Corniche on its way to the Aswan Dam. Aswan in ancient times was the doorway to Africa and an important trade route between the Mediterranean coast and Nubia, the ‘Land of Gold’. The town was also once considered to be where Egyptian civilisation ended, to be replaced by long stretches of inhospitable desert and a different Nile which leaped and eddied over the rocks of the First Cataract, the southern limit of navigation. This dangerous stretch of water now lies between the Old and New Aswan Dams. We first drove through a maze of streets towards the Old Dam, which was built in 1902, before going on to the High Dam further south. This massive feat of engineering, two miles long and situated at the head of Lake Nasser, was seemingly a compulsory visit for all tourists. The Egyptian government is very proud of it. The High Dam was built with Russian aid between 1960 and 1972 and was the biggest dam in the world. A modern monument whose shape is supposed to represent a lotus flower, has been erected at the entrance to commemorate those involved in its construction. All the men of our group busied themselves marvelling over the massive barrages and machinery of the dam, while I stared out over Lake Nasser on the other side, towards the Nubian Temple of Kalabsha in the distance.
I was more interested in Philae Temple, the next stop on our itinerary, a monument I had read about and was looking forward to seeing.
The coach arrived at a quay, to the south of the Old Aswan Dam at Shallal, locally known as Philae Port. After stopping at the ticket office at the end of another tourist bazaar we were taken by our guide Salah to a waiting motor launch for the short journey to the temple. The water sparkled like diamonds as we bounced our way between the many rocky islands, perched on benches beneath the colourful awning of the boat while a couple of little boys were trying to sell us necklaces of perfumed wooden beads. Salah was giving us a history of the temple but I found it hard to concentrate with the marvellous scenery all around me.
For over 50 years the Island of Philae and its monuments lay half-submerged in water built up behind the Old Dam during annual inundations. In the 1960s, teams financed by UNESCO began work to rescue the Nubian monuments, after the construction of the New Dam increased the problem of rising water levels.
As our boat made a sudden turn into the sun, the magnificent vista of the island appeared before us and we landed at the ancient quay on the south side. The temples (the site consists of several monuments) have now been completely dismantled and rebuilt to the original orientation on the nearby island of Agilika which rises higher above the water. Agilika was reshaped and landscaped to resemble the original Philae and metal pylons on the old island can still be seen rising from the water to the south of Agilika. Most of the structures were built during Ptolemaic and Roman times and were re-used by the early Christians when the temple was finally closed by the Emperor Justinian in 550AD. The main temple, dedicated to the goddess Isis, was the centre of the cult of Isis and Hathor during the Roman Period and was the last pagan temple in use in Egypt. There are many legends connected to Philae, but the most well known one tells the story of how Isis found the heart of Osiris here after his murder by his brother Seth. We began our tour in the earliest of the surviving monuments, the Kiosk of Nectanebo I, of Dynasty XXX, a small hall with screen walls linked by graceful columns. Two long rows of columns, each with a different intricately carved capital, on the east and west sides of a large courtyard lead to the massive first pylon of the Temple of Isis. The first pylon was built by Ptolemy XII and decorated with reliefs of the king subduing his enemies and worshipping the goddess Isis. I was beginning to recognise this important traditional scene from the other temples we had visited. There are two portals, the main one was an earlier doorway built by Nectanebo and looking up on the east wall there are inscriptions by Napoleon’s French army who visited here in 1799.
The hypostyle hall seemed small and unassuming compared to some of the other temples I had seen. A series of three small rooms or vestibules, lead to the central sanctuary and its chambers on either side have entrances to underground crypts. The Isis sanctuary still contains a pedestal where the sacred barque used in the processions and festivals of the goddess would have rested. Leaving the main temple by a doorway in the eastern side, we visited the small Temple of Hathor, with its elegant Ptolemaic papyrus columns and depictions of the little god Bes and an ape playing a musical instrument. On the western side of the island, near the Ptolemaic birth-house, a damp, moss-covered stone stairway leads down to a dank muddy pool and a nilometer near the river’s edge. These structures were used to measure the height of the annual inundation in ancient times in order to assess taxes for the coming harvest.
Philae is a lovely temple, made even more picturesque by its setting on the island. I wandered through its halls, taking in a little of its history, becoming more familiar with the stories of the deities, Isis, Osiris and Horus and the complicated names of kings that were now becoming easier to remember. After the tour my friend and I found a Nubian guard who unlocked a door in the second pylon for us and showed us up a flight of dark stone steps to a suite of rooms on the roof. These special shrines had once been even more holy than the sanctuary, with carvings depicting parts of the body of Osiris and the supreme moment when Isis pours forth her invocations and Osiris is resuscitated by the songs of the divine sisters, Isis and Nephthys. Osiris is shown as a corpse lying on his bier, while Isis the Great Mother flies over him as a Kite or vulture, her massive wings ready to fan life back into her husband while at the same time devouring his flesh. By this sacred ritual she conceives their son, the falcon god Horus, who comes to represent the living king. We sat there for a while, contemplating the legend, marvelling at the beautiful mysteries unfolded all around the walls. No mention of these shrines was made in any of the guide books I had read and I felt privileged to have been shown this special place rarely seen by tourists.
All too soon it was time to leave. The journey back around the eastern side of the island by boat gave us a spectacular view of the Kiosk of Trajan, probably the most distinctive of Philae’s monuments, with its 14 graceful columns and screen walls, depicting the Emperor Trajan making offerings to Isis, Osiris and Horus. The roof has gone and the kiosk which was at one time the main entrance to the temple from the river, is airy and open.
The Perfume Factory
I had come to realise that visits to these wonderful ancient sites had to be ‘paid for’. While I came away from each monument with my head full of images of gods and kings, eager to go back to the boat to read more about them or write in my diary, we were invariably brought back to earth by a visit to an emporium. Papyrus, perfume or alabaster, they were all the same – each visit consisting of a lengthy demonstration of the production of the goods before being given the great opportunity to buy ‘genuine’ souvenirs. This time it was a perfume factory on the outskirts of Aswan grandly called the Sultan Palace, where members of our group were daubed with several different fragrances from intricately made glass bottles which, we were told, go into some of the world’s most famous perfumes. After accepting a ‘welcome drink’ of cold kakade (a refreshing drink made from hibiscus flowers), the visitor is somehow made to feel ungrateful if no money changes hands. Nothing is obvious of course and there is no pressure to buy anything but for many the temptation is great. I learned later that tour guides depend on a large commission from these places to augment their wages and also that the goods for sale are rarely made on the premises. After this visit our coach had a distinctly exotic aroma all the way back to Aswan, especially as one lady from our group had accidentally dropped a large bottle which spilled perfume over her clothes. Or as another gentleman (who may have had the experience) put it, ‘This coach smells like a Turkish brothel’.
Journey to Abu Simbel
The following morning at 3.00am, ten of our group congregated bleary-eyed in the lounge to begin another exciting day. We were to travel by coach in convoy with a police escort, across the Nubian Desert to Abu Simbel, only 50km from the Sudanese border. Leaving in darkness with our pillows and blankets and a packed breakfast we set off on the long journey across 280km of straight bumpy tarmac road. The idea had been to try to sleep on the coach but I found I was much too excited by the prospect of seeing my first real desert landscape, expecting wonderful vistas of huge golden sand dunes. After half an hour of driving at break-neck speed, one of the coaches in front of us crashed into the back of another causing quite a lot of damage. There was a great deal of shouting in Arabic and waving of arms, each driver blaming the other, while the tourist police tried to sort out the problems, but luckily no-one had been hurt and after a while we were able to continue. The highpoint of the journey was when we stopped to watch the sunrise, piling out of the coach wrapped in blankets in the freezing morning air as the sky slowly turned a pale gold. Suddenly the bright fiery ball of the sun began to ascend into the heavens. It was truly a magical moment and I almost expected to see a great scarab beetle, the god Khepri, pushing the sun upwards into the sky in the solar barque of Re to continue its daily journey, so immersed was I in this new magical mythology I had been discovering. Or maybe it was just sleep deprivation inviting hallucinations…. As the light began to increase the powdery golden dunes of my dreams turned into flat expanses of dirty pale yellow sand interspersed with dark crumby rocky outcrops, looking like heaps of coal piled up at the roadside. Later, as we crossed the Tropic of Cancer the outcrops became larger, cones or pyramids moulded by the wind, but still the empty desert stretched on and on as far as the eye could see.
After four hours we arrived at our destination and went straight into the complex of the Temple of Rameses the Great. Since Abu Simbel was first visited by Burckhardt in 1813 many adventurers have been struck by the awe-inspiring facade of the temple built by Rameses II around 3000 years ago with its giant colossal statues of the king sculpted from the mountain rock. I was no less awe-struck than those early travellers as I came face to face with the four giant seated figures of the king. An unexpected freezing wind was blowing off the lake as we went into the temple in search of shelter. We were the first of the day’s visitors and the guardian opened the huge wooden door for us with an enormous golden key fashioned as an ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol of life. Inside were colossal statues and painted reliefs of the great Rameses, mainly depicting scenes of the might and strength of the king during his military exploits. His most famous campaign, as advertised on most of his later monuments, was the Battle of Kadesh – incidentally considered a great victory by both sides. The temple was dedicated to Amun-Re, Ptah, Re-Horakhty and the deified Rameses himself and each god is dramatically portrayed in the sanctuary.
A second smaller rock-cut temple, built in honour of Nefertari, the Great Wife of Rameses II and dedicated to the goddess Hathor, lies to the north of the Rameses Temple. Never before had a queen been depicted alongside her husband and on the same scale, as Nefertari is on the facade of her temple. Inside this simple but beautifully feminine monument, the queen is shown taking part in divine rituals with her husband. The accumulation of Nile water after the construction of the new High Dam at Aswan had threatened to engulf the monuments along its Nubian shores, just as it had at Philae Island. In a dramatic race against time UNESCO began a grand rescue operation in 1964, the like of which had never been seen before. In the incredible salvage operation the temples at Abu Simbel were dismantled and cut up into manageable-sized blocks, marked and then painstakingly reconstructed 65 metres higher than the original site, away from the dangers of the encroaching lake. Inside a specially constructed mountain, two gigantic reinforced concrete domes protect the rebuilt temples. I was amazed by this gigantic undertaking and had to keep reminding myself that the temples were no longer in their original position, since tremendous care had been taken with landscaping and orientation of the monuments. Only the fact that we could enter the artificial dome to view its construction reminded me that the original site of Rameses’ temple has now vanished below the waters of the lake.
The journey back to Aswan on the coach during daylight was much more interesting, with strange shimmering mirage-lakes appearing regularly on the horizon, often reflecting the rocky hills behind. We stopped once to photograph a large camel train on its way from Sudan to the camel-markets in Egypt, the poor beasts walking for the whole of their journey of more than 900km.
Amazingly we were back in Aswan in time for a well-earned nap before dinner. Pity the camels didn’t have that luxury.
In the evening my friends and I visited Sharia el-Suq, the main bazaar in Aswan. It was dark by 6.00pm. at that time of year but even late in the evening I could still feel the lingering breath of the day’s heat, though the Egyptians were wrapped up in thick scarves and shawls – after all it was winter here. The main street of the bazaar was narrow with tall colourful buildings on either side and had a distinctly African feel with its brilliantly coloured fabrics, Nubian crochet hats and strange mounds of pungent spices and herbs, displayed in neat pyramids of fabulous colours – red, terracotta, ochre and vibrant indigo blue. Stalls were lit by strings of lightulbs and some even had small bonfires in oil drums to keep the stall-holders warm. Wafting incense blended with the scents of strong Turkish coffee and roast lamb, while bare-footed children scampered from stall to stall. Many bargains were discovered and after a lot of good-natured haggling we left satisfied with our purchases. Walking back along the Corniche we could see the dominating sand-covered hills of the West Bank which is strewn with rock-cut tombs of high-status officials of the Old and Middle Kingdom. At night the necropolis is floodlit and is a hauntingly beautiful sight across the dark water.
My sixth day began with another of those clear mornings when the air is very fresh, even though there had apparently been no rain for several years and all the trees and flowering plants along the Corniche were shrouded in a thick mantle of dust. A large felucca had been hired to take us sailing across to the West Bank, where the desert hills crowd down to the river’s edge. The traditional felucca is a broad-beamed wooden sailing boat with a low draught, enabling it’s heavy rudder to navigate the most shallow of the river’s channels. Its tall stately lateen-rigged sail reaches high into the sky to catch the prevailing wind blowing from the north as the boat makes use of the Nile’s natural current that flows from the south. The boats were traditionally employed as working craft, ferrying people, animals, building materials and food up and down the Nile, but now they are used more often to carry tourists. Aswan is a felucca paradise – the river is wide with a fast current, a good wind and the scenery is very picturesque, but its many boulders and narrow channels between the islands can make it difficult to navigate. Our Captain was obviously an expert. He took delight in trying to scare us by rushing into the wind and tilting the sail so that it almost touched the water. Then we were gliding silently past the West Bank tombs of the nobles, their causeways reaching down towards the river, as we watched a string of tourists riding up a narrow sandy path on camels. Perched high above the tomb entrances is Qubbet el-Hawa, The Dome of the Winds, the tomb of a Muslim sheikh who forever looks down over the ancient necropolis.
Eventually we landed on the West Bank below the Mausoleum of the Agha Khan. Aswan was the favourite winter retreat of the Agha Khan Mohammed Shah, spiritual leader of the Ismailian Muslims. When he died in 1957 he was buried in a pink granite and sandstone tomb modelled on a Cairo Mosque, on the hillside opposite Elephantine Island. Inside the mausoleum the imam’s sarcophagus of white marble is inscribed with Qur’anic texts, incredibly beautiful is in its serene simplicity. Every day a fresh red rose is placed in the tomb. The views over Aswan and the islands from outside the mausoleum were spectacular. During our journey back to the East Bank we were entertained by the crew of the felucca. An enormous dark-skinned Nubian man named Mohammed skilfully played a big tambourine-like drum and before long we were all in party mood, singing and clapping to the well-known song ‘Oh aleyla’.
After a short walk along the Corniche and lunch on the cruise boat we were once more steaming down the river, this time going north, back towards Kom Ombo. Another lazy afternoon watching the fascinating life on the river banks. Every now and then I saw groups of black-clad women at the water’s edge balancing large clay pots on their heads and walking gracefully along as if the heavy pots weighed no more than a sack of feathers. The women seemed so accomplished at this traditional daily task that they had no need to hold on to them. Sometimes a donkey pulled a flat wooden-wheeled cart along a track, driven by a young boy swinging his legs and swishing a palm frond, moving no faster than his ancient ancestors would have done. As we cruised passed Kom Ombo to our right, the elegant temple still perched enticingly on its hill, but from this more distant view I could also see the smoke-stacks and factories of the modern industrialised town behind. Further down river as the sun began to set, fishermen were silhouetted against the banks, knee-deep among the bright green rushes. Sometimes they were so far out in the river on narrow strips of land that they appeared to be walking on the calm silvery water. Tiny red and green fishing boats began to appear further out in the current, one man beating the bottom of the boat with a stick to attract the fish, while another cast his nets in a wide dripping arc. Everywhere, white egrets soared above the fishermen waiting for discarded morsels. Occasionally a great heron flew at river-level among the reeds, huge wings outstretched on some errand of its own, or perched grandly on the lower branches of an overhanging tree. While my companions slept on sun beds on deck I was riveted to this water-bourn rhythm of life in the Egyptian countryside. A sense of calm had washed over me with the gently moving river, more powerful than a tranquiliser.
Sometime during the night we docked at Edfu, though I didn’t know it until I woke next morning. After breakfast we sailed on towards Esna, arriving at 11.00am. The air was cold with mist and cloud covering the sun and Salah told me that Esna is considered the coldest place in Egypt because the agricultural landscape is so flat and open. I found that hard to believe, being so far south, but maybe it was his personal opinion as he was a city man from Cairo.
As soon as we arrived we left the boat for the short walk through the bazaar to Esna Temple, which stands today in its excavation pit in the centre of town, 9m below the modern ground level. The temple, dating to the Ptolemaic and Roman Period and one of the last temples to be built in Egypt, was dedicated to the god Khnum and several other deities, including the goddesses Neith, and Menheyet. It is thought that the structure would once have been built to a plan similar to the temple at Edfu but all that now remains is the hypostyle hall that was built by the Roman Emperor Claudius who extended earlier buildings. The remaining part of the temple is around a quarter of the size of the original building, and the oldest part of the structure still standing is the back wall which would have been the facade of the original temple. The roof of the hypostyle hall is still intact, supported by 24 columns each with varied floral capitals. They are decorated with texts describing the religious festivals of the town and several Roman emperors before the gods. The age-blackened ceiling is decorated with Egyptian astronomical figures and Roman signs of the zodiac. The dark single hall reminded me of old engravings I had seen in books and in the open space in front of the temple I was captivated by a lovely statue of Menheyet who was a little known lion-headed goddess named at this temple as the consort of Khnum.
Walking back down through the bazaar we had a little excitement when my friend gave pens to some children and almost caused a riot. An older man in a tattered galabeya who should have known better, began to grab the pens out of the children’s hands, while other nearby stall-holders who had witnessed the episode tried to get them back. After much loud shouting and cursing in Arabic, which inevitably drew many onlookers, the tourist police turned up and we were able to beat a hasty retreat back to the safety of the boat, returning to the bazaar after lunch to buy our souvenirs in peace.
Later that night as I sat listening to the musical chanting of ‘Allahu Akhbar’ in the last call to prayer of the day and watched the pale crescent moon rise on its back in traditional Islamic shape over the darkened buildings and minarets of Esna, I thought, ‘Yes, God is Great’, whichever gods they may be.
Friday morning. A whole week had gone by and we had arrived at the last day on our cruise boat. By yesterday, three of my five friends and many more from our boat had come down with an attack of ’Pharaoh’s Revenge’ – a very unpleasant tummy bug which many people seem to suffer from in Egypt. We were told that the main cause of this is from not drinking enough water in the hot climate. Fortunately there were magic pills to be had from the reception desk which seemingly would stop an elephant in its tracks and my poor friends slowly began to recover.
We now had the emotional task of saying goodbye to all the new friends we had made among the passengers and crew. We had shared so much in the past week, friendships had been forged, unhampered by the cares of every-day living or the differences in life-style. We had been pampered, entertained and cared for by the excellent staff and we would surely miss them, though they would be too busy with the next influx of tourists to miss us. But it was only the end of the first part of our adventure, with just as many eventful days to look forward to and in a way we were having several holidays rolled into one, at least this was what it felt like to me. As I made my way once again towards Luxor on the coach, the road was familiar as if I had travelled this way many times before. The whole group were taken to the airport; some were flying back to England, but I was so thankful when I wished them a good journey home that I was only flying as far as Cairo.
The short Egyptair flight to Cairo lasted forty-five minutes. Flying low, we followed the winding river that glinted in the sunlight, with the shadow of our aircraft below us and very soon, we were descending on the flight path into Cairo, circling down through dense patches of cloud and yellow-tinted smog. The airport terminal was much bigger than Luxor and crowded with many travellers, Arabic and European voices mingling with Japanese and Australian, with some Egyptians who looked like they had been camped there for days.
My first impression of Cairo was not good. I thought it noisy and dirty and there were too many people. I am a country girl at heart. As we drove from the airport at Heliopolis the smell and taste of hot traffic fumes, caught in the ochre haze hanging over the city, blended with all the other smells of humanity living in close proximity. Neither was this the Cairo I had read about in historical novels, it was a modern city of multi-lane highways, concrete and glass like any other. Many of the grand houses and palaces of Cairo’s colonial past have been replaced by high-rise apartment blocks, crammed into small spaces and already turning into slums. I felt bitterly disappointed, wishing that I had stayed in Luxor where the fresh breezes from the Nile carried a hint of the fragrances of jasmine, spices and incense and not the noxious odours of this teeming metropolis. Coming from the intimate cosy atmosphere of the boat, our hotel was a bit of a shock too. It was situated on Gezira Island, a vast building, like a small glass city in its own right with a shopping mall and several restaurants and bars on the ground floor beneath a soaring soulless tower of impersonal rooms, on levels linked by crowded elevators. Looking out from the window of my room on the ninth floor I felt remote, isolated from the movement and noise of millions of people below in what was, after all, the biggest city in Africa. Even the Nile, here bordered with skyscrapers, seemed like a different river, not the friendly ancient waterway I had bonded with so intimately further south.
Next day my friends and I had decided to take one of the hotel’s city tours, it was an easy-option to get a feel for Cairo. We began the day at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, a vast ornate Victorian edifice, with galleries, high ceilings and dusty rooms full of wonderful treasures dating to a time as far back as when Britain was still in the Neolithic Age. All we have remaining from that period are a few flint tools and stone axe-heads but here in Egypt there were craftsmen manufacturing gilded furniture, fabulous jewellery and the most amazing carved statues and reliefs. I had only enough time to see a small proportion of the collection, spending quite a while in the Tutankhamun gallery oblivious to the jostling crowds and noisy guides, totally captivated by the treasures before me, images which were so familiar from my books back home. Nevertheless, coming face to face with the dazzling beauty of the boy-king’s golden coffin gave me an unexpected thrill. Some of the books say that Tutankhamun’s grave goods are little more than mass-produced junk, hurriedly collected together for his premature burial, but if this is junk, what spectacular riches must the earlier and more important burials have contained? There was no answer to this question because no earlier pharaoh’s tomb has yet been found so completely intact. Wandering through some of the Old Kingdom galleries on the ground floor I eventually made my way towards the exit, marvelling at the ancient people who had the technology to quarry and carve those massive stone statues which had miraculously been preserved for five thousand years, give or take a century or two.
Our next stop was the Citadel, a great stone fortress rising on a spur of the Muqattam Hills which can be seen from all over Cairo. It was begun by the Sultan Saladin to defend the city from the Crusaders during the twelfth century, though the most famous structure within its precincts is the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, the last of the Turkish rulers to reside here. After admiring a spectacular view over the city (partly hidden in the smog) we removed our shoes and went into the mosque to gaze at the ornate alabaster-faced honey-coloured walls surrounding the huge space inside, empty except for the tomb of Mohammed Ali. Overhead a vast Byzantine Dome is flanked by four semi-domes of intricately crafted bronze stained glass and suspended from the ceiling there are hundreds of electric lamps which flood the mosque with subdued light. Back outside in a courtyard fringed with domed porticos, there is a clock given as a gift to Mohammed Ali by King Louis Philippe of France in exchange for the obelisk that now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. It is said that the clock has never worked.
We drove back through the city past the tombs of the Mamaluks, the so-called ‘City of the Dead’, a vast necropolis of domes and minarets. The cemetery is inhabited by thousands of people. The dead are buried in elaborate tombs which date back to the twelfth century, while the living, some of Cairo’s poorest inhabitants, exist in shanty dwellings packed between the impressive mausoleums.
As we drove on through the streets of Cairo, I began to realise that this was city of stark contrasts. Behind the smart shops in spotless tree-lined avenues we would suddenly turn a corner into a dingy street and the scene was transformed into one of past glories, tall crumbling buildings with faded peeling paint, where children still play barefoot among the rubbish to the ever-present background throb of transistor radios.
To the Khan el-Khalili
The traffic in Cairo was truly terrifying. The roads are clogged with all kinds of transport. Coaches and microbuses, taxis and private cars vie for every centimetre of tarmac with donkey-carts and bicycles. Every vehicle was so covered in dents and scratches that I was amazed the roads were not littered with accident victims as the locals dodged and danced around the moving cars. Traffic police waved their arms and blew their whistles but seemed to be ignored by the throbbing motorised monster that breathed noxious fumes over city. Sometimes one of the city’s battered windowless buses would speed past our coach within a hair’s breadth, crammed with passengers, many of whom were clinging on to the back bumper and each other for a free ride. The buses never seemed to stop for passengers who just hopped on and off like trapeze artists whenever the traffic was slow enough. And the worst of all this was the din of accelerating engines, squealing brakes and the incessant use of the horn, that was apparently obligatory.
By some lucky chance we arrived unscathed at the Khan el-Khalili, said to be the biggest bazaar in the Arab world. The original building of this famous suq was constructed in 1382 by Amir Garkas el-Khalili and later became a caravanserai, a hostelry for travelling merchants from all over the world, in downtown Cairo’s area of affluence and commerce. I saw the Khan el-Khalili as a labyrinth of narrow streets and passageways, sometimes covered over, where many craftsmen work in gold, silver, brass, leather, glassware and stones. There were shops which could make a shirt or galabeya while you wait, shops selling wonderful perfumes and incense and many coffee shops where the local men congregate to drink tea and smoke shisha. It is almost impossible to describe the chaos of texture, colour and smell in the Khan. A riot of brilliantly coloured carpets and fabrics covered the walls and in some of the narrower streets were draped overhead, giving the impression of being in a long tent. Peacock-blue Egyptian glass crafted into all kinds of shapes, sparkled in an occasional shaft of sunlight and competed with brightly polished brass and silverware for brilliance. Every kind of smell assaulted the nose in turn; piquant herbs and spices, fragrant perfumes and incense and the inviting aroma of strong Turkish coffee mingled together with the less appealing odour of animals and humanity. We were dropped off at el-Hussein Square and given an hour to browse the thousands of shops and stalls offering every type of souvenir. Those of us who were looking to spend money found plenty of variety and the fierce competition made it worth practising our bargaining skills. From each kiosk came cries of ‘Just take a look’ and ‘How can I take your money today?’ or ‘I have exactly what you’re looking for’, as hundreds of hopeful dark eyes followed our slow progress along the street. We were afraid of losing our bearings among the narrow alleyways and as we didn’t really have time to go very far into the bazaar, my friends and I decided we would come back later in the evening.
When we did go back to the Khan we felt very daring as we took our first thrilling ride in a taxi across the city from our hotel. We leisurely browsed the suq’s tiny streets and dark alleys, now lit up by thousands of star-shaped brass lanterns and bare electric light bulbs, giving a warm yellow glow to the dark evening. The atmosphere felt very different at night, somehow more mellow and intimate. There were a lot of Cairene families in the streets, out for an evening stroll with their small children, all dressed in their best clothes. We joined some of them in a famous coffee shop called Fishawi’s where we sat outside at a brass-topped table in the alleyway and watched the whole world go by. I even risked having a Turkish coffee, a strong aromatic beverage served in a tiny cup with thick sludgy coffee grounds in the bottom. There is an art to drinking this coffee which I have perfected since becoming addicted to it. One of my friends asked for shisha, the water-pipe that is a trademark of Arabic countries, with it’s wonderfully fragrant tobacco in flavours such as apple, honey or cherry, and this event became an amusing interlude for the locals. On the journey back to the hotel around midnight, through streets still thronged with the bustle of people and traffic, I thought about my day. There had been so many new and stimulating sights and sounds that I decided Cairo may not be such a bad place after all.
On our second day in Cairo we arranged for a taxi to take us on a tour of the monuments at Giza and Saqqara. The day was bright and clear – the smog mysteriously disappearing as we travelled westwards away from the city. The driver, whose name was Hassan, took us first to Giza, famous for three pyramids.
The Dynasty IV king Khufu (Greek, Cheops) was the first to construct his pyramid at Giza. His monument, which is known as the ‘Great Pyramid’, is the only surviving structure of the seven ancient wonders of the world. Khufu’s pyramid was the tallest building in the world until the early part of the 20th century AD. Khufu’s son, Khafre (Greek, Chephren) also constructed a pyramid next to his father’s monument. From a distance Khafre’s pyramid looks higher than Khufu’s, but this illusion is due to the structure being built on rising ground. The third pyramid belongs to Menkaure (Greek, Mycerinus) and is the smallest of the three.When they were built the pyramids were encased in thousands of blocks of white limestone from the Tura quarries across the river and must have presented an imposing sight, shining from a great distance in the scorching sunlight of the desert. Now most of the casing stones have gone, robbed in ancient times, but some can still be seen on the apex of Khafre’s pyramid. The pyramids of Giza have always fascinated mankind and a great many mysteries have been built around them. Napoleon Bonaparte himself was greatly impressed by the structures when he conquered Egypt in 1798, at the time when they were truly out in the desert. They have been given many names – the ‘Granaries of Joseph’, the ‘Mountains of the Pharaohs’ – and there are numerous theories about their origins, including their construction by long-lost civilisations such as Atlanteans or even extra-terrestrials. There is great speculation on exactly how they were built, using the primitive construction methods of the time and whether their orientation was cosmic or religious. The pyramid complexes are surrounded by vast cemeteries of mastaba tombs, similar in size and originally laid out in street-like rows. Mastaba is the name given to a large rectangular superstructure built over a deep burial shaft and comes from the Arabic word for ‘bench’. There are hundreds of mastaba tombs at Giza where the Old Kingdom elite were buried close to their pharaohs.
The Giza Plateau’s other claim to fame is for the Great Sphinx, which is situated next to Khafre’s causeway and valley temple. One of the world’s greatest monuments and the first colossal royal statue of ancient Egypt, the Sphinx was known as ‘Abu Hol’ (Father of Terror) to the Arabic people. It is fashioned out of a natural limestone outcrop left over from the quarrying of stone by the builders of the Great Pyramid. We do not know who first shaped the statue, completing it with mudbrick. Some say the original face was that of Khafre, others claim it has the features of Djedefre, Khafre’s predecessor, who may have used the quarry for his pyramid at Abu Rawash. The Sphinx is carved in the shape of a crouching lion with a human head. Many enigmas surround the Sphinx, including the legend of a lost Hall of Records which is supposed to be hidden beneath the statue, although there is no evidence at all for this, and its true purpose remains a mystery.
My first impression of the pyramids was the shock of how close they were to Cairo. I had expected desert, but here they were, somewhat diminished by the ever-encroaching skyscrapers of the city. When we left the taxi we were instantly besieged by hawkers selling postcards and trinkets or touts insistently offering horse or camel rides around the plateau. Standing up close to the Great Pyramid the structure was quite overwhelming, towering 140m above us and constructed with massive blocks of stone, each one a metre high. Every visitor to Egypt should have the experience of going into the Great Pyramid at least once, and I was no exception. Its low-ceilinged passageways and vast ascending stairways were awe-inspiring. I had recently been reading the sci-fi books of Arthur C Clark and as I ascended the great stairway inside Khufu’s pyramid I was certain that this was the inspiration behind some of his stories. By the time I reached the King’s Chamber in the centre of the pyramid I was hot and breathless and found it difficult not to think of those thousands of tons of stone bearing down on me. But then I was distracted by the acoustics. The slightest noise seemed to be amplified in this empty chamber and to echo round and round the walls producing harmonics and vibrations so that I couldn’t tell where the sounds were coming from. The King’s Chamber was completely empty and I was alone, except for a huge granite sarcophagus. Eventually, aware of time passing, I went back down the wooden ramp of the great gallery and found myself once more outside in the blinding sunlight.
It is impossible to visit the Giza plateau in a short time. I have since returned many times, seen its different moods and visited all of its other monuments but it would realistically take weeks to see everything. On that first visit we saw Khufu’s stately Solar Boat, reconstructed in its own museum and looking like it would sail as well today as when it was built around four and a half thousand years ago. We then took a quick look at the other pyramids before stopping briefly by the sphinx, which was closed for restoration. I was not reluctant to leave Giza. I felt that what I had seen here had been enough of an introduction to the plateau and I wanted a little time to absorb and savour the experience of the Great Pyramid before moving on to our next site.
Memphis is the Greek name for the what was then the administrative capital of ancient Egypt, which dates right back as far as the Early Dynastic Period. The origin of the city’s foundation is credited to the mythical first king, Menes, who is said to have united Upper and Lower Egypt for the first time around 3100 BC. Traditionally Menes was thought to have enclosed his city within white-plastered mudbrick walls which gave it the ancient name of ‘Inbw-hedj’, meaning ‘White Walls’ or ‘White Fortress’ and it probably once stood much closer to the banks of the Nile before the river bed gradually shifted eastwards. There is nothing to see of the earliest monuments, now buried beneath an area which has long been cultivated. Archaeologists suggest that the ancient city now lies beneath the deep deposits of Nile silt to the west of the river. Today the site centres around the modern village of Mit Rahina on the west bank of the Nile, 24km south of Cairo and is reduced to a small museum and an enclosure where statues are exhibited. Most of the existing remains date to the New Kingdom. The most impressive statue I saw, lay on its back in the modern museum building, the colossal limestone statue of Rameses II is a twin to the statue erected in the centre of Midan Rameses in Cairo, near the main railway station (now moved to Giza). The museum piece is only a fragment, but even without its lower legs it measures nearly thirteen metres and once stood with its companion outside the Temple of Ptah at Memphis.
The high point of the day for me was our next stop, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Saqqara is the location of the principal necropolis of ancient Memphis, dating from the time of the foundation of the city. The site covers an area of 900 hectares, crowded with burials which span almost the whole period of Egyptian antiquity. The plateau contains a great number of massive tombs belonging to members of the first royal families and high officials from Dynasty I onwards. The name of the first ruler of unified Egypt, Narmer, whose tomb is at Abydos, further south, is also known at Saqqara. Many of the Early Dynastic rulers appeared to have funerary monuments at both Saqqara and Abydos and there is much debate between archaeologists about which site contained the actual burials of these rulers.
The most famous monument at Saqqara is the step pyramid complex of the Third Dynasty King, Djoser, which was thought to be the first large funerary monument constructed in stone and much of its architecture is based on the natural materials which had previously been used in the construction of royal tombs and temples. This is the monument most people come to visit, although there are many other pyramids, including those of Kings Userkaf, Teti and Unas. Many important officials resided in Memphis during the New Kingdom and although the kings of the period are known to have been buried at Thebes (Luxor), many of the elite constructed elaborate tombs at Saqqara. To the north-west of the Step Pyramid are the animal cemeteries, including tomb galleries of mummified baboons, ibis and falcons as well as the ‘Serapeum’ – underground galleries in which the sacred Apis Bulls were buried. From the Late Period onwards there were vast numbers of animals, including dogs or jackals and cats being embalmed and buried in huge catacombs.
The Step Pyramid itself, constructed by Imhotep, a great architect and magician who was revered throughout ancient Egyptian history, was not open to visitors because of its dangerous condition, but we wandered around the periphery looking at the incredible structures with intricately carved pillars and cornices that echoed in stone, the natural materials that the designs were based on. Elaborate friezes of cobras were carved on top of the walls surrounding the pyramid complex. From the top of the ridge we had a spectacular view across the desert, north towards Abusir, and Giza and south towards Dashur. I sat for a while looking over the desert and talking with one of the camel drivers, who told me his camel’s name was Whiskey. His own name was Ahmed, a sprightly old man with twinkling eyes set in a brown wrinkled and weathered face who wore a long grey striped galabeya and shawl, with a scarf wound around his head to keep off the blistering sun. Ahmed told me in his broken English that he had been working here at Saqqara for four decades and had seen many changes.
Our journey back to Cairo involved the traditional visit to a carpet factory. Hassan had been a good taxi driver and had been very patient with us all day, so we went along with the visit as it seemed to please him more than our tour of the monuments and no doubt he hoped to earn commission from any purchases we made. The carpet factory, in the village of Haranaya was in fact also a tapestry school where children as young as five were taught to create the intricate designs that had been woven for centuries. Their tiny fingers worked at great speed with multi-coloured skeins of wool and when they were older, they graduated to fine silks which shone with the colour of jewels. Often they did not even have a pattern to follow, having learned the design through years of practice. We were told, as we watched the children and admired their work, that it takes three months to create one metre of silk carpet, which was reflected in the prices of those gorgeous examples for sale in the gallery above.
We had had a lovely day and were very tired as Hassan drove us back to Cairo through the rush-hour traffic, relying, as he told us, on good brakes, good horn and good luck.
Back to Luxor
We had spent only two full days in Cairo, but it felt like much longer. I still wasn’t sure if I liked the city but it certainly had been an important part of the ‘Egyptian Experience’, as our package was called. On the surface, to the casual tourist who is ferried about in coaches and groups it is a city trying hard to modernise itself. We were introduced to a Cairo wearing its best clothes. But already I had realised the huge contradiction and struggle here between the thriving economy of a western-style culture and the hidden poverty of the slums which for millions of Cairenes is their daily life.
We left our grand hotel early in the morning in a coach on route to the airport, picking up other tourists on the way. There was a lot of waiting. The smog and traffic fumes were bad this morning and even with the air-conditioning in the coach I felt I could hardly breath by the time we reached the airport at Heliopolis. More waiting as the internal flight to Luxor was delayed by an hour, held up for some important passenger to arrive. The flight took 50 minutes and from my window seat I was able to look out over the desert as we followed the Nile south. It was a lovely flight and I watched the changing patterns of desert, hills and valleys until before long we were descending towards Luxor. I felt quite emotional as we touched town on the bumpy runway once again. My excitement of the first few days in Egypt returned as I left the aircraft and felt the hot breeze and fresh Luxor air on my face. It was a strong feeling of coming home.
Our hotel, The Isis, had recently been built and was at that time one of the best in Luxor. It was situated right by the Nile, that wonderful river which I already felt had claimed me. Walking in the afternoon sun, down through well-tended gardens draped with bougainvillea and hibiscus flowers right to the water’s edge, I could look across the calm stretch of river to the Theban hills beyond. This was the point that I really fell in love with those mountains which had for centuries protected and hidden the incredible tombs of kings and nobles buried in the Valleys of the West Bank.
Later that evening my friend and I daringly took a caleche into the centre of Luxor to walk through the bazaar. We were instantly adopted by two little boys, who, bare-footed and wearing grubby blue galabeyas, took our hands and led us through the suq. Mustapha and Hani both spoke excellent English and were only too pleased to show us the ‘best’ shops and advise us on prices. We chatted to shopkeepers who plied us with numerous cups of strong sweet Egyptian tea and we bought one or two presents for friends back in England – a place I had hardly remembered since arriving in this wonderful country. Tired but happy we eventually walked back to the hotel. I was so excited to be back in Luxor again.
Karnak Sound & Light
On my 11th day in Egypt I woke at dawn and went out onto the hotel balcony to listen to the call to prayer and to watch the sun rise on the mountains of the West Bank. The jagged line of hills was bathed in a soft warm rosy glow – the sun-god Re building a new day. The mist rose over the river like a curtain covering a precious jewel, all the more magnificent when it was revealed.
My friends and I spent a lazy day by the river or lounging around the hotel swimming pool. Hard to believe this was almost Christmas the weather was so comfortably warm. Later in the afternoon some of us went to the bazaar again, where my new little friend Hani was waiting to guide us around. Some of the shopkeepers recognised me from last night – what amazing memories they have given the numbers of tourists who pass through here.
After dinner five of us went to see the Sound and Light show at Karnak Temple, ‘Thebes of the Hundred Gates‘. I was excited to be going back there. I have a friend who had excavated at Karnak back in the early ‘seventies and years ago he had played me a recording of the sound and light show that he’d heard each evening from his hotel roof, so I was already familiar with the story it tells of Luxor’s historical past. I have not seen the light show at the Giza pyramids but it is said that the one at Karnak easily rivals it.
The journey began at the avenue of sphinxes, the approach to Karnak’s first pylon and continued through the great court. The first voice spoke; “May the evening sooth and welcome you oh travellers from Upper Egypt“. Then another voice was heard saying; “You will travel no further because you are come. Here you are at the beginning of time“. I felt a delicious shiver of anticipation as we walked through the dark hypostyle hall, lit by hidden spotlights, with its giant forest of pillars casting shadows into the corners and giving a wonderfully mysterious atmosphere. Here the story began to be told of the “Great Week of the Creation of the World, the separation of the Earth from the Waters“. We heard the voices of Champollion, one of the first to decipher hieroglyphs, the voices of the god Amun, the pharaohs Seti I, Rameses III, Tutankhamun and Taharka continuing the journey to the heart of the night. Hearing about the lives of pharaohs who built and re-built monuments to their own memory, I truly was transported back in time and could almost smell the incense and hear the chanting of the priests, despite the crowds and the modern lighting.
We made our way slowly through the temple to the seating area on the banks of the sacred lake, hardly noticing the chill in late evening air, to hear the story’s completion. “A Hundred trumpets shrill thy name oh Thebes and echo thy beauty….. where only the gods have endured“. We heard about the grand archaeological site, the divine city of Karnak where… “They all brought their stone and their prayers“. We were told of how Queen Hatshepsut brought Karnak’s massive granite obelisks down river on barges from Aswan. We heard how Karnak was relegated to the shadows at the time of the Aton, before the new child pharaoh Tutankhamun restored the ancient worship of Amun and rekindled the thousand lamps of the abandoned temples, then how his tomb was discovered in the Valley of the Kings in 1922. The voices in the night described the fabulous machinery of the universe and how the priest-astronomers observed its movements from the terraces of Karnak. I looked up at the clear velvet sky and there were billions of twinkling stars, reminding me that the gods of this place will reign forever. I was so captivated by this whole experience that by the time we made our way out of the temple for the caleche ride back to the hotel, I was speechless for the rest of the evening.
To the West Bank
This morning there were a group of musicians playing outside our hotel. They wore colourful galabeyas and turbans and played a variety of instruments including several types of drum and tabla and a rababa. The rababa is a curious instrument consisting of half a coconut shell covered in goatskin (traditionally) with a long vertical pole with pegs at the top which keep its two strings taut. It is played like a violin with a bow and is also known as the ‘Fiddle of the Nile‘. To our western ears the discordant screeching noise it made was terrible! I loved the drums though and that wonderful Saidi rhythm. I chatted to the musicians for a while, whose ages ranged from around twelve to eighty, and learned about their instruments, even having a try at playing the rababa. Hmm, It wasn’t as easy as it looked. I could have listened to the insistant drumbeat, and the alternate drone and melody of the rababa all day. It was so different to any music I’d heard before and seemed to come up from the ground through my feet making me want to dance.
But I had other things to do. My friend and I were going to make our first solo foray over to the West Bank. Although there was a special ferry for tourists, we decided to cross the river on the local ferry, a listing, rusty metal hulk which seemed to contain half the population of Luxor. On the way we met a taxi driver called Sharif, who we had spoken to before. His taxi was in Luxor, but he said his father had one on the other side and if we went with him to his parents house he would ask his father to take us to the tombs. This we did, but the whole procedure took much longer than we thought as we were invited by Mother to have a cup of tea in the shaded garden courtyard while Sharif went off to look for Father. Small brothers and sisters stood and silently gazed at us with huge liquid eyes while we tried to make conversation in sign language. Sharif’s father Ahmed was duly found and we eventually set off in his taxi. We were heading for the Nobles tombs out towards the mountains after buying our tickets at the ticket office, which at that time was near the river.
The village of Qurna was nestled in the foothills of the Theban mountains and hidden among (and under) the primitive houses are over 400 ancient tombs and tomb chapels belonging to the local elite. The first we saw, and which I will always think of as one of the most beautiful of the Theban tombs was that of Sennefer, ‘Mayor of the Southern City’ of Thebes and an important official during the reign of Amenhotep II. His tomb, high up on the hillside, is known as the ‘Tomb of the Vines’ because of the beautiful decoration on some of the ceilings which gave me the impression of standing under an tent hung with big bunches of grapes. Its two chambers were deep underground and the paintings of Sennefer, his wife and his sister were very colourful and well-preserved. For a little baksheesh, the guard allowed us to take photographs.
The owner of the next tomb was Rekhmire who was a ‘Governor of the Town’ and ‘Vizier’ during the reigns of Tuthmose III and Amenhotep II. In a long high passageway there were many scenes of industries and craftsmen and in the outer chamber pictures of animals – panthers, giraffes, elephants and horses brought from Nubia. The following tomb. belonged to Khaemhet, who was a royal scribe and ‘Overseer of the Granaries’ during the reign of Amenhotep III. This was not so colourful but had beautifully carved reliefs of agricultural scenes as well as funerary scenes.
In our fourth tomb, that of Userehet, another royal scribe, we saw more agricultural scenes, this time painted rather than carved. The guards here were very good to us, though they spoke no English. They lit the walls of the tomb with a series of shiny metal sheets used as mirrors to reflect sunlight onto the walls (not very archaeologically sound as I later came to realise). Anyway, it worked very well and we were able to take photographs in even the darkest corners of the tomb. I loved the scenes of daily life found in these tombs much more than the formal afterlife scenes in the Valley of the Kings.
Our last call was to the tomb of Ramose, ‘Governor of Thebes’ during the reign of Amenhotep III and Akhenaten. This was his tomb-chapel and was much larger and grander than the previous four. The reliefs on the walls were (and still are) in my opinion the most beautiful in the whole of Egypt. After we had a good look around the guard took us down into the burial chamber, which involved an adventurous slide down a steep narrow tunnel on our bottoms. The chamber was roughly hewn from the rock and completely empty and undecorated, but worth the undignified descent just to see the glittering alabaster ceiling. By the time we emerged to see the curious faces of another party of visitors my friend and I were both filthy and dishevelled. Strangely we both felt much more comfortable in these nobles tombs than we had in the tombs of the pharaohs. There was a much more personal atmosphere here – I could imagine the lives of the owners and their families much more easily than the remote lives of the kings. Or perhaps it was because we hardly saw any other tourists and were able to spend as long as we wanted in the tombs admiring the ancient craftsmanship.
Finally we asked Ahmed to take us to the Ramesseum, the temple built for Rameses the Great, but unfortunately the monument was closed for restoration. Instead he took us to Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Rameses III. The paintings here were fabulous, with so much colour compared to all the other temples I had seen. I was very surprised it was not more of a major site, being second only to Karnak Temple in size. At that time hardly anyone went to visit it. I was so glad we had come here as it became in the following years my favourite place in Egypt.
In the evening my friend and I were invited to a wedding by Moses, a self-proclaimed ‘Egyptologist’ we had met and chatted with a few times. We both jumped at the opportunity of meeting more locals and seeing some real Egyptian life and customs. The event was not at all what we expected. It was held in one of the back streets of Luxor, draped for the occasion in red, green and white colourful awnings. The street, which was closed off for the wedding, had a decorated stage at the end, where a group of musicians were sitting. However, they were not playing when we arrived, and instead, ear-splitting pop music was blasting from some massive speakers at the back of the stage. The groom, we were told, was also sitting on the stage, but the bride was with the other women, mother, sisters and friends, sitting to one side in a separate group. We were invited to sit in the rows of chairs facing the stage where the men were sitting. I have later come to realise that quite often a female tourist sometimes must become an ‘honorary man‘, as we cannot easily be categorized, nor can we be included in the gaggle of women who huddle together in a secluded group. I must say, we were warmly welcomed and seated in a ‘place of honour’ in the front row (just in front of one of the powerfully loud speakers!) and each given a bottle of Pepsi to drink. For a while we enjoyed just people-watching and every few minutes one of the elder men would come and try to have a conversation in broken English. ‘Where you from?’ ‘My name is…?’ (meaning ‘What’s your name?’). There was a lot of nodding and grinning and they did seem to be very pleased that we were there. We learned that the groom’s name was Mohammed, but the bride’s name, though we asked several times, seemed too unimportant to be mentioned. She was dressed in a bright pink confection of a wedding dress with many frills and ruffles. Every few minutes some guest would go up to the stage and hand a wad of money to the groom and I later learned that this is a custom at Egyptian weddings.
We sat for about an hour, hoping that the loud music would stop and that the musicians would begin to play, but it didn’t seem that it would happen anytime soon. After a while we realised that our guide Moses had disappeared and nobody knew where he had gone, so we waited for a while and then decided to leave. This was not as easy as it sounds as we were somewhere in the warren of narrow back streets of Luxor in an area we had never been to before. There were no taxis or caleches and by this time it was 11.30pm. But in Luxor, the friendliness and kindness of the people means that you can never go far before help is at hand. Eventually a man saw us looking lost and guided us to a main street, flagging down an ambling caleche to take us back to our hotel and he even insisted on paying the driver from his own pocket. One thing that really struck me at the time was how I had never felt unsafe or threatened here. I would not be comfortable wandering alone through the streets of my home town at that time of night, but felt perfectly safe here and I have felt the same every time I’ve been in Egypt since then. I have been invited to much nicer weddings and have learned much more about the customs, but that first brief experience gave me a glimpse into the character and generosity of the Egyptian people – apart from Moses, I have to add, who had abandoned us and who we never saw again.
Another early start this morning as my friend and I had arranged with Sharif the taxi driver to take us to the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, one of the most extensive temple complexes to survive from the Ptolemaic Period. Sharif had already collected his brother who was about to be conscripted into the army and had an appointment in Qena to sign the papers. We took the east bank route beside the Nile travelling northwards and crossed the long bridge over the river where it bends dramatically at Qena. The road to Qena is very long and straight for about 65km with several police checkpoints along the way. Today, if you are not Egyptian, it is impossible to travel freely around Egypt. Since the terrorist problems, any movement outside the major tourist areas is forbidden, unless you travel with a police convoy. But in 1995 the convoys were not yet in operation, though security was still an issue. We had also wanted to visit Abydos but it was closed down completely. In fact our hotel tour guide advised us not to go to Dendera either as two foreigners had been shot dead there the previous year. But we were determined to see as much as possible in our remaining time in Egypt.
Dendera Temple is a few kilometres west of Qena on the other side of the Nile, the road winding around vivid green irrigated fields where farmers were busy tending their crops and cattle. We drove past the occasional donkey loaded with green clover and perhaps one or two farmers taking produce to the market in Qena, but otherwise we were on our own. The temple was equally deserted and the three or four guards who rushed out to welcome us told us that tourists rarely visit here. In fact there were not even any tickets sold. We were guided around the temple by the gafir, or chief guard, who pointed out the important parts of the temple. The high ceilings of the hypostyle hall were dirty but I could just make out the beautiful paintings of astronomical deities against a dark starry sky. We were shown an underground crypt, out of which flew a cloud of bats and where we saw the famous ceremonial scene which some claim depicts a modern light-bulb. I was not convinced! The pitch dark winding staircase up to the roof impressed me with its high narrow apertures for light carved with representations of the streaming sun, while the king led a procession of priests carved onto the walls. One of my favourite parts was up on the roof, which commanded a wonderful view across the desert beyond the cultivated areas of farmland. Today this top part of the roof is no longer accessible. Mysterious chapels and sanctuaries were dotted about the lower roof level and we saw the blackened ceiling of the Dendera Zodiac, though I didn‘t learn until later that this was merely a copy, the real one being in the Louvre in Paris. The beautiful goddess Hathor, to whom this temple was dedicated, was depicted everywhere with her consort Horus, whose temple we had seen at Edfu, and their son Ihy. I especially loved the Hathor-headed columns on the facade. We had an hour or so to look around the complex and we saw the birth-rooms, the Isis Temple at the rear and the peaceful rectangular sacred lake, now dry, with palm trees growing from the sandy bottom.
All too soon it was time to leave. A party of excited Egyptian schoolchildren had just arrived and were shouting for pens, sweets and baksheesh, which went some way to dispel the feeling of desolation here. It was sad to see the shabby café and bazaar all shut up and the few local people desperate for contact with tourists, which meant money for them. It was so unlike the more popular sites south of Luxor.
Our driver Sharif seemed to be much happier when he was on the road back to Luxor. I sensed that he was uneasy driving through Qena where foreign tourists were never seen. On the way back we asked if we could visit a well-known pottery at Garagoz, near the town of Qift, and got permission from the police at a checkpoint and an armed escort to take us. Unfortunately nobody knew the way and we drove around the lanes and along dirt-tracks for many miles before we found it. Tourists often used to visit the pottery in the village of Garagoz, set up in the 1950s for the Christian community there, but had not come for many years because there had been some religious unrest in the area. The pottery factory was opened especially for us (it had been closed for the afternoon siesta) and we were warmly welcomed by the manager. We saw some of the pottery, the quaint little figurines seen in bazaars all over Egypt, in the process of production. We had a cup of tea and bought some of the little figures (we felt obliged to after all the trouble we had put people to). By the time we arrived back in Luxor it was 4.00pm. The whole trip had cost us only LE50 (Egyptian pounds), just under £10 English at that time. It had been a fascinating day and I was so glad to have seen a little of Egypt away from the tourist trail.
I am always more aware of the day of winter solstice than I am of Christmas itself. The solstice for me is a time of change and rebirth, new beginnings. In England midwinter is a dark time when day is barely distinguishable from the long protracted night, but also a time of hope. In Egypt, the hours of day and night vary only slightly throughout the year and I found myself content with this natural balance and happy to follow its rhythms. On the morning of winter solstice 1995 I woke with the sun casting a misty rose tint on the Theban Mountains across a luminous river. This was my last day in Egypt! I sat on the balcony of my room for a long time basking in the growing warm glow and bidding the mountains a lingering farewell. Below me the gardeners were already out to tend their flowers of vibrant scarlet, cerise and yellow and one old man, Mahmoud, looked up and waved at me before continuing to hose down the footpaths, ready for the new day. How different this day would be in England.
As our last day, this one had to be even more special than all the others. My friend and I decided to go back to Karnak Temple and we hurried to be there before the crowds. How wrong we were – the coach parties were already arriving as we stepped out of our taxi at 8.00am. Once inside we each went off to try to find a quiet place. I headed straight for the sanctuary and sat there alone for a few peaceful moments studying the carvings, the picture of the sacred barque, used to transport the god’s image, and I imagined what this place would have been like in ancient times. Did those priests recognise the turning of the year? They certainly watched the starry heavens and recorded events. I wandered across to the sacred lake, shimmering in the morning light and I followed its edge all the way around. There were a few stone steps leading down into the lake and I went down and dipped my fingers into the green water – an echo of the daily purification of the priests. It was perhaps a symbolic gesture, a bonding with a bygone time and with these stones as they were now shaped. It was a thanksgiving to whatever gods there are for allowing me to be here at this time. I didn’t make a wish, rather a solemn promise that I would be back, whether to the gods or to myself, I couldn’t say. But someone must have been listening because I have returned to Egypt at least once each year since that time.
The flight home to England later that day both ended and began my love affair with this ancient land.
Back to Chapters
Back to Posts